Thursday, October 6, 2011

Poverty and the Food of Poverty

Preserved Meats, Grappa, Coq Au Vin, and just about everything fermented that we consume as part of our diet today. What do they all have in common? They are "luxury items" at least in America, and often in their home countries as well, but at one time they were a staple of poverty eating.

Preserved Meats are now the ultimate in luxury items. Prosciutto for it's nutty lusciousness, applewood smoked varieties of ham in the US are prized for their carefully developed flavors, and even simple "country hams" that require long soaks to remove their unmanageable salt content are all considerably luxuries. For other meats it can be even more true, a bag of beef jerky at the store is now a luxury for someone who will buy it and eat it as a "snack" and then go and have a full meal with a complete compliment of protein a couple hours later. These meats were originally dried and eaten at a time when they were a core staple of one's diet in the cold months. Beef Jerky was a food of intense poverty. Only in a modern setting would we consider consuming beef jerky as a snack instead of our only meat for the day. Why only eat beef jerky when luscious fresh meat can be had at the store for so little in the middle of February?

Coq Au Vin, which is renowned for it's magnificence, its aroma, its delicate texture was a way to use up a Rooster at the end of it's life because no piece of meat, no matter how problematic to cook could be wasted. Now it's a slow cooked extravaganza, rarely ever prepared because of the intense amount of labor involved. Even most foodies I know wouldn't invest the multiple days it takes to make this dish properly

Then there's Grappa, the perfect example of a stable of poverty turned on its head. Grappa is a liquor made from the leftover grape skins, pulp and stems after wine is made. The commoners of the time would drink Grappa while wine was much more available to the upper classes. Nothing was wasted in that time. Now the name Grappa is protected in the European Union, there are strict standards that must be met in order for a drink to be called Grappa. To say this is a strange fate for a drink that was designed as a way to get one more strained use out of waste is a bit of an understatement.

These similar, but unrelated examples demonstrate the profound change in the way we think about food. In searching the internet for texts on paganism and food I have found blog posts about the ethics of eating that talk about local food, and the impact on the planet, and so on and so forth. One piece in particular about Pagan Food Restrictions struck me in the way it spoke about food. The author talks about organic food, and local food, and the environmental impact of shipping food. Then he references a local beef farm that he will not buy from because they grow corn and feed it to the cows, which is not what cows evolved to eat.

All of his points are valid, and speak to pagan ethics and morality and so I don't want to dismiss them, but at the same time they all very profoundly miss what I have always seen as the root of people's connection to the earth. That root is poverty. In the past we could not follow a recipe because there was no megamart around the corner to provide exactly what we wanted on a moment's notice. Our great grandmothers made culinary wonders with what grew in their gardens, and the animals they raised that would not live through the winter, and any number of other, often meager resources at hand. The spices and herbs that were indigenous to a part of the world defined the flavors of their native regions, simply because they were what was available.

I have spent the majority of my life watching my parents cook according to this philosophy, and then learning to cook by this philosophy myself. Over the years though as I have brought the fruits of my labors to work, to parties, and to cozy gatherings in the homes of my friends people often express awe at the food I make. Something about the praise for fare that was simple to make, and often improvised simply confuses me. What bothers me the most about this praise is how it demonstrates the rarity of the skills necessary to make such food.

There is another more specific story that profoundly drives home my point. I used to be a member of the labor union board for the clerical and technical workers at Indiana University. IU decided to begin a healthy living initiative related to their health insurance offerings. There are several such programs around the US, the idea being that if you get people to regularly get checked for major biometrics (cholesterol, blood pressure, BMI etc.) that you'll be able to reduce the amount you spend on health care because people will take better care of themselves overall. Repeatedly I heard the same refrain from staff as the details of this plan were being released. "I can't afford to eat healthy food". Several union members referenced Bloomingfoods, which is the local Bloomington equivalent of Whole Foods as being out of reach, and this somehow meant they had no choice but to continue to eat terribly. My mind reeled as I heard this refrain over and over and over again. What it amounts to is "I can't afford to buy raw ingredients and then work with them, so I will buy food that has someone else's labor already priced into it". The association of organic with "healthy" completely compromised their ability to think about food in the simple terms of "What's available, and what is the most that I can do with what I have?" That simple statement is I believe at the core of how to reestablish our connection to food and our own cycles.

The union sponsored 2 healthy cooking classes in an attempt to reach out the membership and help them to gain the skills necessary to cook for themselves and really dig in and discover how to cook for themselves. The other member who put these classes on with me had a very different perspective on how to teach the classes. He wanted to emphasize tradition, and luxurious ingredients, and . . . well to be honest a lot of things that resulted in high fat expensive meals. Yummmmmm. Or something. To this day I have never seen so much Parmesan thrown in one casserole before, and I pray to never see such a thing again.

All of this brings me back to the general disconnect between us and food. As pagans we are drawn to work with what's in season as part of our meditation on the land, its cycles, and the nature of the bounty provided to us. As people living in a time when money is scarce, and pinching every penny is important we should be buying what's in season because it will be affordable, and will help us to learn how to cook with a variety of ingredients. When we honor our ancestors we can meditate on their strength, and willingness to make for themselves. Not just make a dish, but to truly invent the dish a little bit every time we walk into the kitchen to cook. We should take part in these traditions ourselves, and when we invent something truly fantastic, when we craft the perfect batch of lasagna, the batch that we know we will likely never make quite the same way again it is a plate of that dish that belongs on the altars to our ancestors. While we cannot sacrifice the fatted calf that we toiled over, we can offer the best spoils of what labors we do perform, and in many ways that is the most powerful magick we have to offer.

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